Is the Weston Price Foundation an astroturf site? I can’t prove it, but I suspect that it may be, and here’s why.
I recently came across an alarming series of articles by George Monbiot on “astroturf” campaigns on the internet. “Astroturf” is a name for the synthetic grass that football games are often played on; but it is also a derisive term referring to organized support for a government or corporation which mimics a spontaneous grassroots movement. Monbiot describes how corporations and governments will hire people to make comments on internet forums, often under a variety of different “personas,” in order to cloud debate or derail intelligent discussion. This gives the impression that there are real people, independently examining the evidence, and coming up with conclusions surprisingly similar to those espoused by the corporations or governments for which they work, when the reality is quite different. This has all been going on, evidently, for about a decade, so the techniques are pretty well established.
Is the Weston Price Foundation the vehicle for such a campaign? I’ve known about this site for years. It’s a pretty silly site, an anti-vegetarian web site loosely supporting a variety of viewpoints all in praise of livestock products, appearing to be “progressive” because it espouses “natural” therapies and organic produce.
On its web site, you will see a smiling picture of a family with the announcement, “they’re happy because they eat butter!” with the additional information, “they also eat plenty of raw milk, cream, cheese, eggs, liver, meat, cod liver oil, seafood and other nutrient-dense foods.” The WPF is happy about people like Gary Taubes and the Atkins diet. One of the WPF’s local contacts in Denver is on the Faculty of the “Nutrition Therapy Institute” which was founded in order to integrate information from the American Dietetics Association with the implications of new discoveries in quantum physics. (Seriously.) It would not seem to require a whole lot of critical thinking to see that there are a whole lot of problems with this point of view.
That called to mind an internet discussion which I regretfully got into in late 2008, over two years ago. There was an article posted on “Sustainability, Energy, and Health.” When I discussed the Atkins diet and Gary Taubes, no less than four people immediately leapt on me to defend the Atkins diet. I mentioned a number of obvious problems, including the fact that Atkins had been denounced by just about everyone respectable (the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, etc.) and that Taubes had misrepresented many of the people he quotes from in a celebrated article he wrote for the New York Times.
None of this fazed them. They just kept on coming, repeating their statements in a different way, and creating the impression of real debate over a topic over which there is actually very little to debate about if you look at it objectively.
Are these people using critical thinking? I think not. Let me put it this way. If someone said that T. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study” had been denounced by the National Academy of Sciences, or had deliberately misquoted many of his key sources, I’d be very, very alarmed. I’d want to get to the bottom of it. This doesn’t necessarily mean I would dismiss “The China Study” in such circumstances, but I would want explanations and answers. I would want to know, at least, what the story was.
But when the argument is made that (e. g.) Gary Taubes is misrepresenting his sources, this doesn’t have any effect. They apparently regarded such statements as just more “political” statements, as part of the game that was being played, and didn’t take them seriously. They responded by flinging what they perceived was an equal and opposite pile of mud in my general direction, and considered that to be a satisfactory answer.
At the time I thought that these were just misguided people. Perhaps by engaging them in debate I could get them to see another viewpoint. But now another possibility has emerged; they may not be “real people” at all. They may be paid by the livestock industry to spread their opinions and disrupt the environmental and sustainability movement by trying to make livestock agriculture respectable.
Does this mean that the internet as an open forum for debating real issues and engaging in critical thinking is essentially dead? In a relatively unmoderated forum, the answer is likely “yes.” The debate can be killed or disrupted by a few people paid by the industry. They can keep going and going, after everyone else has tired of the argument and stopped following the discussion.
It can also be disrupted by real people who believe in what the Weston Price Foundation says and repeat their statements ad nauseum. There is an element of herd mentality in internet discussions; if a person reads something they like, it will often get repeated uncritically.
One of the people promoting backyard chickens in Denver cited the Weston Price Foundation as evidence that eggs are a healthy food, evidently in all innocence. Nicole Foss, whose opinions on the financial system I admire, has recommended Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth (a silly book which relies heavily on Taubes and Weston Price type arguments to make an even more extreme case). They are both evidently meat-eaters, find confirmation of their views within a “holistic” framework, and then repeat them.
With the lack of critical thinking rampant throughout our society, what are we to do? There is essentially no way to tell the difference between a paid representative of the livestock industry and someone who reads their website and says, “yes, this looks good.” They are both human beings. Neither is exercising critical thinking on important topics, even though on other topics they may function very well.
It is only with some difficulty that we are able to distinguish computers from humans in the generation of spam messages on internet discussion forums. Unlike the CAPTCHA tests (“Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”), we have no test to tell people who engage in critical thinking apart from people who are sucked in by inaccurate and misleading information circulated by the likes of Atkins, Taubes, and the Weston Price Foundation. It can happen to any of us.
(Alan Turing was an early 20th century mathematician and logician who posed the question of whether computers would ever develop to the point where we couldn’t tell them apart from humans on the basis of their language. It’s too bad we don’t have a similar test of critical thinking skills.)
I would suggest that people who believe in critical thinking should not attempt to engage in public debate on the internet over issues such as this. This is one way in which the internet has led to a degeneration of social skills because people have no experience of actual discussions (in which the people are physically present in the same room). Would you go out some evening to a meeting of people who have shut down their critical thinking abilities on a certain topic, and try to discuss or debate this topic with them? Or (as a vegetarian) would you go to a meeting sponsored by the Livestock Board, or packed with their supporters? Obviously not. If you wouldn’t go to a meeting such as this, then why do it on the internet?
The internet has great democratic powers, but it is being used to sanitize a lot of really bad ideas by cloaking them in “environmental” or “holistic” labels. Some groups use “astroturfing” techniques to make it appear that such views have widespread support, in the hope that these views may take on a life of their own. While I can’t prove it, I suspect that the Weston Price Foundation is one of these groups.
UPDATE May 19, 2011: The President of the WPF (which I should have referred to as WAPF, the Weston A. Price Foundation), Sally Fallon Morell, said that raw milk is a “magic food.” This got posted on Facebook by Go Vegan USA, who added, “WAPF have actively hassled the GV chapter in Santa Barbara by creating fake profiles and posting propaganda on their Facebook wall. They apparently have a habit of targeting vegans. Sad stuff.” This is the first direct evidence I’ve seen other than my own experience that WAPF is an astroturf group.
And here’s an article by John Robbins on WAPF which doesn’t address the “astroturfing” issue but which is good background on both the foundation and Weston A. Price himself (who was actually being misrepresented by the WAPF).
UPDATE May 31, 2011: Here’s another article dated May, 30, 2011, from the Zen Habits web site. It is mostly concerned about soy, but has a lot of links to other articles about the WAPF. Again, it does not address the “astroturfing” issue but does have a good background on WAPF’s ideas. One of the links describes the WAPF’s funding and membership.